It doesn’t really matter what your favorite athletic pursuit is. Strength is perhaps the most indispensable and universally required physical trait for continued success. No matter where you look on the athletic spectrum, “greater strength” is a common training goal, and ground zero for that quest is in the gym. But you are, as ever, confined by the limits of physiology. Strength is acquired gradually, the result of progressive overload and sound training principles. You can’t just show up to the gym today and be stronger. Can you?
“Yes, you can,” says Jim Stoppani, Ph.D., owner of jimstoppani.com and author of Encyclopedia of Muscle & Strength (Human Kinetics, 2006). “There are a few things you can do in every strength workout that will ultimately maximize the amount of strength you gain.” Time to surrender to your love of instant gratification and get strong now. Right now.
We say that with exclamation points because the buzz of this wonder compound is good for much more than getting you through the morning. “Studies have shown that subjects who consumed caffeine prior to working out were able to do more reps on the bench press with 80 percent of their one-rep max,” Stoppani says. “Another study showed that caffeinated subjects immediately increased their bench by 5 pounds.”
2 MOVE, DON’T STRETCH
Getting a decent sweat going before your workout instead of doing a few perfunctory static stretches can be more valuable than you think. “Research has shown that static stretches done prior to working out can acutely decrease strength levels, while doing active stretches can increase strength and power,” Stoppani says. Moves such as jumping jacks, leg swings, shadowboxing, walking lunges and trunk rotations will better prepare your muscles and joints for the work ahead.
3 TRAIN OPPOSITES
If you’re a fan of straight sets — performing all sets for a particular exercise before moving on — you may be limiting how strong you can be on each rep. “Research has found that a muscle group will be stronger if it is trained immediately after its antagonist, or opposing, muscle group,” Stoppani says. For example, if you follow a set of barbell curls with a set of triceps pressdowns, your triceps will be stronger as a result. So alternating muscle groups, like you would with supersets, actually improves strength instantly.
4 WAKE UP YOUR CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM
Strength isn’t simply a function of how big your muscles are. It’s your central nervous system that determines how forcefully your fibers will contract, so engaging it a certain way can help you move more weight. “Post-activation potentiation is the ability of one exercise to immediately impact the performance of one that follows,” Stoppani says. “One way to use it is to perform one rep of an exercise with 90 to 95 percent of your one-rep max, rest three minutes, then perform regular sets with a weight slightly heavier than your eight-rep max. You should now be able to get an extra rep or two on your eight-rep max.”
5 PICK SIDES
When mentioning abundant strength, the inclination is to think of someone doing a heavy bench press or a squat, in which said lifter gets to use both arms or both legs to complete the lift. But unilateral training can help you generate more force. “Studies show that you are 20 percent stronger when training one side at a time,” Stoppani says. “So if you can do a barbell curl with 100 pounds, for example, you should be able to dumbbell-curl 60 pounds in each hand.”